How traveling with my mom helped heal our strained relationship
The next time you make plans to travel somewhere, call your mom and ask her what she’s doing that week. Even if you don’t get along.
Especially if you don’t get along.
My mom and I spent my entire tweens, teens, and early-to-mid-20s suspended in a perpetual cycle that involved actively fighting, passively fighting, half making up because we felt bad for my dad, and failing at communicating through our many differences. The root of our conflict is sadly simple: We’re too different in some ways (she is outspoken, extroverted and judgmental; I am passive, quiet, largely aiming to be as nonjudgmental as possible, and ashamed when I fail miserably at it) and we’re far too similar in other ways (we both equate being wrong with being less than ourselves — how do you come to a resolution when neither party admits fault)?
And besides, few mother and daughter relationships are void of any drama, aren’t they?
There were moments and insults and slamming doors I’d take back in a heartbeat, but in doing so, I’d also have to surrender the times in our shared history that were, momentarily, drenched in sunlight — the ones that involved overstuffed suitcases, boarding passes, and the promise of places that weren’t haunted by the ghosts of our strained relationship.
My mom worked for an airline, and we reaped the benefits of her job by traveling almost everywhere we wanted to go.
At times, the only proof I had that my mom actually liked me was that she often chose me — not my brother (who was never all that interested in travel, to be honest), not her many friends, and not even my dad — to accompany her on trips. I’m not going to pretend we became different people the second we boarded an airplane. We didn’t have heart-to-heart conversations over in-flight peanuts or share knowing glances while watching Postcards from the Edge with headphones plastered to our ears.
But I learned more about my mother, her love for me, and what it meant to be a woman on those trips than I ever did trapped inside the four walls of a home that often made us both feel like all the air had been sucked out of it.
When I was 16, we drove from San Francisco to Carmel-by-the-Sea in a rented red convertible. Along the way, we stopped and picked up her friend Laura, a divorced woman in her 50s who wore an enormous turquoise ring on her wedding finger. She handed me my first leather-bound journal and plainly said, “You won’t make any money as a writer. You should do it anyway.”
I sat in the back of that car, eating Twizzlers and memorizing every sound they made. I learned that grown women didn’t just gossip — they shared reflections about their past lives, argued about politics, and agreed to disagree and still stay lifelong friends. I learned they still had little-girl-laughter in them when a state sheriff pulled us over and they got out of a speeding ticket — not by being sexy and 20, but by charming him with stories and quips.
Once safely in Carmel, a small beach city on the Monterey peninsula, my mother patiently accompanied me inside and outside of local art galleries. She wasn’t a fan of contemporary art, but — for the first time — waited to hear me explain why the abstract images moved me.
A few minutes later, she walked out carrying a small bag. My first acrylic painting — postcard size, but stunning.
It was the first time she agreed to meet me on my terms, despite not understanding something that brought me joy.
Over the years, there were trips to Ischia, where she forced me to try a fish with its head intact, and she told me she saw a white light appear over her mother’s head the day she watched her pass away. There was a 4 a.m. wake-up call in a small hotel near the Grand Canyon so we wouldn’t miss the sunrise. We went Christmas ornament shopping in Montreal, then drank cold white wine by the river and listened to a jazz band without speaking to one another — one of the only times a shared silence felt as good as a hug. In Old San Juan, an older gentleman approached us and asked to buy us a drink. I was 19 or 20 and as ripe a peach as I’d ever be, but he only had eyes for my mother.
At one point he stared at my face for a few minutes longer than usual. “You have curious eyes,” he said. It wasn’t a compliment. It wasn’t an insult. It was an awakening. I wasn’t going to be a painting men gazed at; I was always going to be a woman who stared just a little too long at other people. Despite rejection, he left our little table with a grin on his face.
It was the first time I noticed my mother’s eyes weren’t brown; they were amber with gold specks.
Our most important trip together was also one of the last we’d take before I became a woman who vacationed with boyfriends, friends, and sometimes alone. Two months after I left for London for a study abroad program, she met me at my apartment before our planned journey to Bath. She walked over to the dining room table to put her handbag down without taking her eyes off of me.
Something in her face told me she regretted the decision to send me across the Atlantic. She seemed to have trouble breathing. She hugged me and wouldn’t let go for what seemed like an eternity. Then she barely looked at me again.
I had lost too much weight — 15 or so pounds I didn’t need to lose in the first place. I was in the throes of an eating disorder that had started 10 years prior, but had room to expand like a sponge the second I found myself alone and traveling without my mother for the first time. She would later tell me she could feel every rib and bone in my back that day. She said something about my clavicles; she suddenly became fixated with my clavicles. At some point that morning, my mother exhaled and we boarded a bus to Bath, where she watched me float around hot springs, shade my eyes from the sun and Georgian architecture, and pick at sandwiches. Her eyelashes were moist a few days later when she left me, but she left me there anyway.
I hope I have the courage to make the same choice if I’m ever in her shoes. Leaving me in a strange place forced me to become an adult who finally asked for help.
Traveling with my mother didn’t change us, but it gave us exclusive access to one other.
When there were no rooms to run into and no doors to slam, we were forced to see each other: hazel eyes, abstract art, ribs, and clavicles. I’m forever grateful for the times we couldn’t hide.